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October  2022

Gimme Five: Ready, Set, NaNo!

By Julie Tollefson

Are you up for a challenge? With November arriving fast, now is the time to prep for National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo attracts thousands of writers every year who all have one goal: write 50,000 words between November 1 and 30. That’s 1,667 words a day, every day for 30 days.


Sharon Michalove, a NaNo veteran, offers five tips to help you get organized and ready so that when November 1 rolls around, all you have to do is focus on your writing.


1) Define “winning” — NaNoWriMo winners — every participant who hits the 50,000 word goal — earn bragging rights and unlock badges to display on their websites and social media. Sharon has completed five or six NaNo challenges, and she’s “won” in the official sense twice, but she considers every time she’s committed to that month of intensive writing a win.


“I feel like I win if I get far enough along that I’m making progress on my book,” she says.


Last year, she started a new project in November. NaNo gave her the boost she needed to complete a 90,000 word draft in two months. “I considered that a win,” she says.


Don’t be hesitant to set your own targets for the month — number of words written, number of pages revised, or some other metric that gets you closer to your personal writing goals — and celebrate when you achieve them.



“If you tell people you’re going to do something and then you do it and you tell them that you did it, it’s a motivation to keep going.”



2) Stock up — Before November arrives, assemble everything you’ll need to be successful: snacks, pens, notebooks, ideas. Especially ideas.


Going into NaNo last year, Sharon already had a blueprint for the book she planned to tackle during the month.


“I woke up one morning in the middle of summer and I had this idea for this book, characters, plot. The month before NaNo, I actually plotted out the entire book,” she says. “Did I change things? Yeah, but I had my pathway.”


Among the ideas she gathered before diving into drafting: She collected pictures to use as inspiration for characters and places. She thought about the kind of food her characters would eat and the pets they would have. She spent a week thinking about her characters’ relationships to each other and to their families, and she uncovered their secrets. She sketched out a calendar of events to keep her timeline straight as she wrote.


She keeps track of ideas and things she needs to do on sticky notes and in the Notes app on her phone. “I’ll have a folder full of those kinds of notes — ideas, characters, possible titles, then I’ll put all of that together on my planning sheet,” she says.


All of this prep work combined to give her a solid foundation for last year’s NaNo challenge. “It’s the smoothest book I’ve done so far because I really knew where everything fit,” she says.


If you’re more of a pantser, don’t worry! You don’t have to extensively outline your project to win NaNo, but you can take inspiration from Sharon’s preparation. Gather the photos, resources, and reference materials you might need so you can focus on the words rather than the research during November.


3) Find an accountability buddy or group — Sharon’s extensive network of writing friends keeps her on track and motivated throughout the year but is especially important during NaNoWriMo. She belongs to a writing group that meets every morning Monday through Friday and others that meet once or twice a week at different times of day. Through the wonders of technology, some days she finds herself writing alongside a local Chicago group in the early hours of the day then switching to another in Montreal to keep the momentum rolling.


“Just sitting down, doing the work, and having to tell people your progress is half the battle,” Sharon says.



“If you tell people you’re going to do something and then you do it and you tell them that you did it, it’s a motivation to keep going.”



If Sharon’s schedule sounds overwhelming, start small.


4) Set your schedule — November can be a month of interruptions, with family gatherings, holidays, big sporting events, concerts, and more, all vying for pieces of your time. Thirty days can pass in a flash.


“Sit down with a calendar just for November and say these are the things that I have to do and then plan everything else around them,” Sharon says. “The main thing is to get up and write every day.”


Block out the time you have available for writing. If you’re planning a big family gathering for Thanksgiving, for example, pop the turkey in the oven and write early before everyone else awakens. 


Have a flexible mindset, though, knowing that last-minute obligations or emergencies may derail your plans.


“The more stuff you can plan for in advance, the better off you are in terms of actually being successful,” Sharon says.


Consider, too, the amount of time you’ll need to commit to meet the NaNo challenge. If you normally write an hour a day, you may need to up your game during November to reach a 1,667 daily word goal.


5) Reward yourself — NaNo offers badges and banners to post on your website and share on social media to commemorate writing milestones throughout the month, and Sharon works hard to earn those rewards. But planning your own small rewards to keep you going at the end of a difficult day or until you cross the finish line can be just as important.


“I’ll have a really nice piece of Dove chocolate when I get my writing done for the day or I’ll call an old friend I haven’t talked to in a while,” Sharon says. “I had a calendar all last year. Every day I wrote I gave myself a star.”


Plan those rewards in advance and use the promise of earning them to spur you on when the writing gets tough.


Think you’re ready to accept the challenge? Sign up for this year’s NaNoWriMo here. The NaNo website offers a trove of additional advice to help writers meet their goals. 

Julie Tollefson's short fiction has appeared in Life is Short and Then You Die: Mystery Writers of America Presents First Encounters with Murder, as well as other anthologies and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She is editor of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest newsletter.

Book no.2
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